China worked to calm nerves Tuesday among Asian neighbours jittery over its recent attempts to assert greater control over disputed waters, while its rival Washington stressed its national interest in keeping those seas free for commerce.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the US has a stake in the growing number of disputes about ownership of Asian island chains and ship routes through waters China claims.
“We have a national interest in freedom of navigation, in unimpeded economic development and commerce and in respect for international law,” Gates told a regional security forum of defence ministers in the Vietnamese capital.
The message was strong and the audience unmistakable, but Gates avoided a direct confrontation with China. He never mentioned the country by name during a brief address to the group of security ministers, which included a top Chinese general.
Several Asian countries have expressed concern over increasingly aggressive maritime moves by the Communist giant, including its response to a ship collision last month off disputed islands in the East China Sea that plunged relations between China and Japan to a five-year low. Relations have since improved, but both countries continue to claim sovereignty over the territory, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
China tried to ease tensions Tuesday by reassuring its neighbours that it wants to work together.
“China pursues a defence policy that is defensive in nature. China's defence development is not aimed to challenge or threaten anyone, but to ensure its security and promote international and regional peace and stability,” Chinese Gen. Liang Guanglie said in a speech to his counterparts. “Security of a country relies not only on self-defence capabilities, but also on mutual trust with others.”
Defence ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with their counterparts from the US, China, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Korea attended the meeting on Tuesday in Vietnam's capital.